with additions by Ricky Derisz

Healthy communication is key to long-lasting and harmonious relationships. Feeling understood whilst understanding others breeds the confidence to express openly and vulnerably, from the mundane to the meaningful. All relationships require such mutual understanding. But why does so much of what we share get lost in translation?

It’s frustrating, even heartbreaking, to feel as if you’re unable to communicate clearly with a loved one. Crossed wires, misunderstandings or words-left-unsaid can cause fractures in any relationship, despite our best intentions.

Anyone with even a vague interest in self-help or relationship advice will have, at some point, encountered the five love languages. They’re the romantic equivalent of the Myers-Briggs personality test or the Enneagram, with a host of online quizzes to “discover your language” and an influx of related memes on social media.

The five categories spawned from a book written by a pastoral counselor almost three decades ago, which has since sold 13 million copies and been translated into 51 languages. Clearly, there’s plenty of wisdom to unpack, with the promise of improving harmony and learning to become fluent in the language of love.

Now, it’s time to explore what the five love languages are, and how can you apply them to your relationship?  

What are the Five Love Languages?

Is it possible that each of us has a specific way of receiving love? That the crossed wires are simply different expressions, and if you can harmonize the love language, you can harmonize the relationship? Insights from the pastoral counselor in question, Gary Chapman, would suggest this is the case.

He’s the author of The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. The original run of the book sold 8,500 copies, boosted by its popularity in Christian bookstores, which was seen as an unexpected success by the publisher. The book’s theme formed from Chapman’s work as a marriage counselor, where he kept recognizing a recurring pattern between spouses:

“One spouse would say something like, ‘I feel like he doesn’t love me. The other would protest, ‘I don’t know what else to do! I’m doing everything I should be doing.’”

When he asked the couples what each spouse could do to improve the relationship, Chapman determined that the answers fell into five different categories, now known as the love languages.

The five languages in question are words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, acts of service, and gifts. They each serve as a blueprint for emotional intimacy between you and your partner. The common guidance is that, in knowing your partner’s love language, you can tailor your expression of love so it is better received.

The benefits of the 5 love languages

Before exploring each language in detail, if you’re looking to apply the aphrodisiac of love-language, what can you expect? “Knowing which ‘language’ you speak, which actions you interpret as love, is essential to navigating and maintaining security in your relationship,” said Caitlin Killoren, a relationship coach at Relish.

The five love languages are highly useful to know in order to optimize a connection and love between partners. “When you know someone’s love language, and are able to speak that language, they feel cared for and appreciated,” said Jess McCann, author Cursed? Why you still don’t have the relationship you want and the 5 Cures that can change your love life?

Consequently, you can also end up “spinning your wheels” trying to let someone know how you feel in a way that doesn’t resonate with them. Instead, harnessing the wisdom of the love languages adds more potency to gestures, increasing the loving bond. One study discovered “higher rates of love, satisfaction, commitment, and equity” in couples applying the love languages. 

If you know your partner is especially happy when spending quality time with you, then spending large amounts money on a gift won’t be as meaningful as an afternoon at the beach or a picnic in the park would.

Jess McCann

The love languages aren’t a magic fix. Be wary of performing acts with the expectation they’ll definitely have an impact, and keep an open heart. With that in mind, let’s jump in and explain each in more detail, along with communication tips and action steps to apply the love languages in your relationship. 

1. Words of Affirmation

Many of us have one dominant and recognizable love language, and most people fall under the “words of affirmation” category. But while everyone enjoys a kind word, some of us need more affirmation than others. Partners who respond to words of affirmation would appreciate being told, more or less explicitly, that they are valued or appreciated. Conversely, people who favor words of affirmation will be particularly affected by insults.

For those who need words of affirmation, their absence can lead to feelings of resentment. While you may be thinking or feeling good thoughts about your spouse, try verbalizing them and see the power of your words.

Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, licensed clinical professional counsellor

In times of WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, and email, stepping back in time to draft a handwritten love letter can have a big impact on a partner whose love language is words of affirmation. Not only is it personal and an unexpected change from the digital day-to-day, studies have found writing by hand encourages more openness and vulnerability, allowing you to write from the heart.

“Leave it somewhere they’ll find: their coat pocket or the driver’s seat of their car,” said Killoren. “Tell them what you remember about the beginning of your relationship, about how much you both have grown since you’ve been a couple. Tell them how much you love them and what you admire about them.”

Communication tips: How often do you tell your husband you love and appreciate him? When was the last time you told your wife you liked her outfit or that she looked nice? Express words of affirmation with attentiveness, instead opting for flattery or charm. And keep in mind encouragement is a significant aspect of this style of communication.

Actions to take: In some ways, this is the reverse of acts of service, in that words speak louder than actions. Spontaneous compliments are worthwhile, but also take time to reflect on the qualities you admire in your partner and be as specific as you can be. You can even use this exercise to inspire your love letter!

2. Quality Time

love languages quality time

People who favor quality time would prefer “engaging in an activity together, particularly one you both enjoy, like a walk after dinner” or something else that would involve time spent together. It’s vital to be fully present to your partner during these moments.

There is nothing more meaningful and romantic than whisking your partner away on a getaway in nature to spend incredible quality time together. But you don’t have to push the boat out or travel the world — an alternative would be to spend an evening together, with mobiles switched off, candles lit, and no distractions.

The options are endless, as long as you’re present together, they’re happy. “If you go out to dinner, linger after your decaf coffees and just talk until the waiter asks you to leave. Go see a classic movie and discuss it afterward. Visit an art gallery, or stay in,” said Killoren.

Communication tips: All of us can struggle to stay present when caught up in the day-to-day, but those who value quality time want to feel valued and prioritized in moments spent together. So maintain lots of eye contact, and make it clear the time is dedicated to them.

Actions to take: It’s worth looking into meditation or mindfulness in order to practice being present, which in many ways is the best gift you can give a partner whose love language is quality time. In addition, go above and beyond to create time in your schedule. Block out the calendar so you can fully dedicate yourself to your significant other.

3. Physical Touch

love languages physical touch
Physical touch

Most relationships involve physical touch, whether romantic or not. A spouse who favors and needs physical touch is likely to want as much physical intimacy as possible, although this isn’t exclusively sexual. It can be simple, like hugging them after getting home from work or pulling them in close while snuggling on the sofa. Even if this isn’t your primary language, it can be learned.

Helping to fulfill his/her need for physical touch can also include non-sexual touches which may ease the pressure off you if you are not as sexual of a person.

Rabbi Slatkin

Communication tips: 93 percent of communication is non-verbal at the best of times, so this love language is expressed purely through the body. Rather than words, place most of the focus on physical touch. Although, obviously, you do have to talk some of the time! Ask your partner what they enjoy.

Actions to take: Start the day with romance in the air by giving your partner a morning cuddle as soon as you wake up. Although the small gestures count, set aside time to massage your partner, and don’t forget kisses either!

4. Acts of Service

love languages acts of service

Individuals who fall under this category better respond to acts of service from their partner. Therefore, figuring out their needs and what they need help in is the best way to go. On the other hand, as Oprah Magazine outlines, “ambivalence or a lack of support are more damaging than anything else.”

“Wake up early. Make coffee and bring it to your partner in bed. Fold a load of laundry. Pick up the living room. Scramble some eggs, make them a smoothie. Save your money on the expensive reservations – all your partner wants is for you to demonstrate to them how much they mean to you,” said Killoren.

Communication tips: as this is very much action-based, be as practical with your language as you can. This isn’t about false promises, but statements that mark intent, such as “I’ll help you with this.”

Actions to take: What would be helpful to your partner? Do they need their car cleaned? Do they need a night off from cooking? What area of their life is the most chaotic and busy? Keep in mind, these acts are best served spontaneously, so pay extra attention to where your service may be required.

5. Gifts

The best way to imagine this love language is that gifts are physical symbols of love. It doesn’t mean you have to buy your partner flowers every day or browse Amazon for the latest deals every waking hour. The gifts don’t have to be costly, it’s the thought that counts.

Additionally, while most people understand gifts as physical items, they don’t have to be. They can be “tangible and intangible items that make you feel appreciated or noticed,” such as souvenirs or opting for gifts that have sentimental value. That being said, when there’s an opportunity to celebrate, such as a birthday, it pays to be as extravagant as possible.

Communication tips: Gift giving is a process, from the early inspiration of the idea to the effort it takes to put it all together, to the presentation itself. A big part of this is learning what gifts your partner appreciates, so be inquisitive and pay attention to spark ideas.

Actions to take: Get your partner’s car washed, pick up their favorite pastries, buy them tickets to see their favorite band. Keep your partner on their toes and surprise them when you can. “They’ll appreciate it because they feel loved when they receive gifts, but also because research suggests we prefer gifts that are unexpected,” said Killoren.

What to keep in mind when it comes to love languages

It’s worth noting that some prominent relationship experts, including co-founder of the Gottman Institute, Julie Gottman, have reservations towards the love languages. A potential pitfall is “pigeon-holing” your partner’s love language or making assumptions about what they enjoy. Love languages evolve and adapt, so always keep an open mind and open dialogue.

Still, love languages remain a crucial tool with lots of value. So why not indulge, take a love language quiz, and inspire your partner to do the same? Once we understand what we desire and respond to, it enables us to set the standards of our relationships with others. It helps navigate conflict and inspires us to also be as loving as we can be towards our partner.

While it may take some introspection, communication, and patience to figure out, learning the language of love will benefit your current and future relationships, with romantic partners, and with friends and family members.

Learning these languages requires patience and hard work, but perhaps their secret ingredient is the mindset they encourage — one of attentiveness and care towards the people closest to you. After all, what’s better than loving and being loved?

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